Is Illinois’ film tax credit luring Hollywood to the heartland?

While Chicago has long been used as a stand-in for fictional and real settings, the suburbs have also become a destination for film and television companies seeking a specific look.

“Illinois can be everything except a desert,” said Christine Dudley, Executive Director for the Illinois Production Alliance. “There’s the architecture, the lake, the suburbs, the forest preserves and even farmland. And it’s all within a few minutes of each other.”

But what’s making the suburbs — and other parts of state — look so attractive is the bargain producers get for filming in Illinois.

HBO's “Somebody Somewhere” starring Bridget Everett and Jeff Hiller is shot in the suburbs, mainly in Warrenville and Lockport. Courtesy of HBO

The state’s film production tax credit allows qualified productions to receive a 30% transferable tax break on most production costs and certain salaries. Producers can also receive 15% more for hiring workers living in “economically disadvantaged areas.” In return, these productions generate jobs and draw business from outside the region.

According to a new report commissioned by Dudley’s group, the state’s film incentive is the biggest box office draw for Hollywood. A survey of producers included in the report indicates more than 90% of the productions shot in Illinois would not have occurred without the incentive.

“Productions are all looking for where the incentive is, that’s No. 1,” said Peter Hawley, director of the Illinois Film Office. “And we have a very strong one.”

Plenty of recent productions are taking advantage of that.

Producers of the television series “Fargo” used Elgin and other suburban locales as a stand-in for Kansas City a few years ago. Acclaimed director David Fincher turned downtown St. Charles into upstate New York for his recent Netflix film, “The Killer.” And parts of Warrenville and Lockport are used as substitutes for Manhattan, Kansas, in the HBO series “Somebody, Somewhere.”

Hawley notes that in 2022, nearly $700 million worth of film, television and commercial production expenditures qualified for the incentive program, receiving $207 million in tax credits.

“One of the first things we ask on the forms is why Illinois?” Hawley said. “It’s almost always because of the tax credit, because something that was going to cost you $1 million now costs $700,000.”

Illinois is one of 37 states to offer some type of production incentive, according to the report. However, some critics and researchers question the value of these tax incentives, not just in Illinois, but nationally.

“There are common challenges with measuring the economic values of this type of incentive,” said Austin Berg, vice president of marketing at the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think tank that analyzes and tracks government finances. “What would the economic advantage be if you reduced the tax bill of all businesses by $200 million instead of just one industry?”

A National Conference of State Legislatures report in 2022 showed some states are losing money on film production incentive programs.

Analyses of such programs in California, Pennsylvania and Virginia indicated those states weren’t getting the results they anticipated.

“We found that the costs exceeded the benefits,” the California Legislative Analyst’s office wrote. “We concluded that about one-third of the projects receiving a credit probably would have been made here whether or not they received the subsidy.”

It’s not just about what producers are getting, though, proponents of the incentive program argue. There is a greater benefit to the state’s economy than just film production costs, Dudley said.

According to the new report, for every dollar Illinois credits a production, that production is responsible for $6.81 returned to the state’s economy either “directly, indirectly or induced” by the production.

“The Bear,” about a chef (Jeremy Allen White, left) returning to Chicago to run his brother’s sandwich shop, is shot in the city and showcases its restaurant scene. Photo Courtesy of FX

Induced returns would include any type of tourism revenue generated by the popularity of a movie or television show. “The Bear” on Hulu is a critical smash set in Chicago and has sparked a culinary tourism trade in the city.

There are also many bus tours offering trips throughout Chicago and the suburbs of famous filming locations.

However, researchers at the NCSL say it’s “difficult to precisely quantify the extent to which film development benefits state tourism.”

Still, industry officials believe all benefits matter.

“The return on investment for Illinois is one of the highest in the nation, but it’s hard to compare because not all incentive programs are apples to apples,” Dudley said.

In fact, the Illinois model is unlike that of most other states.

“Because it’s a tax credit and not a rebate, the money stays in Illinois,” Hawley said. “We don’t just hand you a bag of cash after filming is over.”

The credit is also transferable, so it can be sold to other business entities that owe the state taxes, Hawley noted.

While the Illinois Production Alliance report does make suggestions that could sweeten the pot for producers, such as eliminating a cap on creditable earnings and removing a 2032 sunset clause for the program, Hawley believes the state remains in a good position to compete for new film, television and commercial projects well into the future.

“We’re expanding,” he said. “We’ve got a workforce training program we’ve started up after it was delayed by COVID. We’re in for the long haul.”

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